The Sun and many American newspapers still have readers like Bessie Eiermann: loyal. For 70 years, The Sun has changed and tinkered and changed, and Mrs. Eiermann is still reading.
She was walking up her East Baltimore hill the other day. Her sister, Ethel Litz, had died the day before and Mrs. Eiermann went to the box at Baltimore street and Highland avenue to get a paper to see the paid death notice. ''It was only half a sample. It didn't have my sister. So I lost my sister and my 50 cents.''
That was her message. I called her up.
''You know, I'm too old for this kind of stuff. It was all uphill,'' she said. Sorry, I said. ''89 years old,'' she said. ''90 soon.''
How long you been reading The Sun? ''Since I was married. 1923. My husband died in 1969 but I still get it. Now I get it at home only on Saturday and Sunday. But I like to get it out of the box, too.''
What do you think of The Sun?
She sighed and paused for several seconds. ''I'm still getting it, so there must be something there I like.'' Pause. She laughed. ''I always do the crossword puzzles but sometimes I don't finish them. I read the local news and I keep the coupons. The TV book is important. I have no problems with the newspaper. The paper boy's a good boy, or rather, a good man.''
I told Mrs. Eiermann the paper box that had run out of copies had a sticker saying she could get her money back by calling The Sun, but I would mail her 10 copies of her sister's death notice and $1.
She was thanked for being a great reader of the paper for 70 years. Seven decades. Harding, then Coolidge were president. Hearst bought the Baltimore News and American the year she looked at her first ''Light For All,'' The Sun's slogan.
Readers like Bessie Eiermann hang on to their newspapers dearly from long habit. Other Baltimore readers, like Charles (Chuck) Benesch, a retired advertising man and business consultant, read The Sun as well as financial journals out of necessity.
''Newspapers are by far the best way to keep in touch with the world. You can't do it without the papers. By the way, The Sun is getting better. . . . You're getting the guts of the news, and I don't have to go through 400,000 words every day to find it.''
Bessie and Chuck are older readers, traditionally the solid center of constantly churning newspaper readership. It's the younger ones the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors wring their hands over. They are studying why many adults between 25 and 44 don't have the daily newspaper habit.
Non-reading starts early. A new national study by the American Federation of Teachers and Chrysler Corporation is the latest education survey showing that reading is a secondary activity at best for many 17-year-olds who think it's less important than math and computer skills.
Brian Haldeman, of Mount Washington, in north Baltimore, is a 25-year-old maintenance engineer at a downtown hotel, a high school graduate, married, father of an eight-month-old daughter, skilled amateur athlete, a sometime poet and only an occasional reader of newspapers. He doesn't know if he will ever subscribe to a newspaper and read it every day. He talks about things ''on the news.'' Like millions of Americans, he means on television. ''TV's easier than newspapers,'' he said.
I asked Brian whether he read any newspapers.
''I read USA Today maybe once a week when I eat lunch because they have free copies at the hotel for guests. Mainly, I read about sports, sometimes other things. Sometimes I'll pay 50 cents for a Sun to read about a big story.''
Does he read other things or watch much TV?
''My reading is mostly books, books about Eastern philosophies and adventure, fiction and non-fiction. Some days I may watch two hours of TV, mostly sports on cable. I play basketball at Druid Hill Park and play a lot of tennis. I used to do a lot of biking.
Could he afford to pay for a newspaper subscription? ''Yes, that's not the problem. I'm busy with a lot of these other things. My family's most important now.''
Why not more newspaper time?
''I can't criticize newspapers because I don't read them much. But the news is pretty discouraging. I'm happier when I don't read about Baltimore murders, the bad news all the time. It's important but it's always there . . . a little depressing.''
Brian said he may well change his views and subscribe to a newspaper when he has more time. He did think he should read more and he said he felt better after learning more about the world by reading books.
D8 Ernest F. Imhoff is The Sun's reader representative.